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Sunday, Oct. 28, 2001
TOKYO FOOD FILE
The upper crust of Ginza
Our appreciation of Isola's superb pizza is already a matter of record: "A work of art . . . As close to perfection as you will ever need to get," we said -- and we have no reason to revise our opinion. When it comes to the location, though, the Food File is far less effusive. Isola is such a long haul from the nearest station that only the already-thrice-blessed who live in leafy Shirokanedai are positioned to enjoy it to the fullest.
So let us celebrate the arrival of its first offspring -- Isola blu by name -- in Ginza, just a couple of minutes walk from the nearest subway. Not only do we get to enjoy superior pizza in a far more accessible part of town, we can do so in splendid, upmarket surroundings.
In stark contrast to the original (a funky, friendly operation with low-budget furnishings), Isola blu is sleek, modern and thoroughly Ginza. It occupies all three floors of a slim new edifice whose striking, glass-fronted facde sets it off from the grubby, anonymous buildings with which it rubs shoulders.
The look is Scandanavian minimalist, with simple white wood furniture and walls decorated throughout in white. The only adornments are the collection of classic Italian wine bottles on the second story landing -- and the magnificent wood-fired pizza oven that dominates the ground floor. It was hand-made by the same craftsmen from Napoli who built the oven at the original Isola. The only difference here is in the color of the tiles (and thus the name).
The ground floor is just big enough for one large table, where you sit elbow to elbow with other pizza aficionados taking in the warm aromas emanating from the back of the shop. The main dining rooms upstairs are compact but convivial, with tables shoehorned in side by side in casual bistro style. On both the second and third floors, there are separate rooms for small groups.
Compared to the parent shop in Shirokane, which offers little more than antipasti, pizza and wine -- and, amazingly, no pasta whatsoever -- Isola blu has a far more extensive menu and a crew of well-trained chefs who imbue their food with fine inventive touches.
There is a good selection of antipasti, both cold and hot, from a simple saute of mussels to platters of best Parma prosciutto. We started our meal with fritti of sardines, a good heaping plate of the small, finger-length fish, gutted, headed and deep-fried in a light batter. Served with a sprinkle of salt and a wedge of lemon, this was tasty, satisfying and great value at just 750 yen for a serving quite adequate for two.
Intrigued by the idea of a salad of cabbage and cumin, we found this to be a splendid composition, the crunchy leaves simply dressed with oil and a dash of wine vinegar, then sprinkled generously with tangy cumin seed. They also have more mainstream salads, such as arugula and Parmesan, that looked equally rewarding.
An entire page of the menu is devoted to pasta and gnocchi, which were tempting. But why waste valuable stomach space and eating time on pasta when you have pizza of this caliber? You will be pleased to know that the crew at Isola blu turn out a product every bit as good as at the parent shop.
The crust is satisfyingly chewy and substantial, and nicely crisped to a freckled golden brown around the perimeter. The yeastiness of the dough combines marvelously with the aroma of the wood smoke. Some may find the salt sprinkled on the dough too pronounced -- we think it's just on the right side of being too salty, and perfectly balanced by a hearty red wine.
Just as importantly, the ingredients used in the toppings are all of prime quality. These range from the simple, as in the basic Marinara, to the sublime -- just try the top-of-the-line Quatro Formaggio (four cheese) or Pescatore (seafood). Our Nero e Bianco ("black and white") was composed of delicate, soft cuts of squid meat laid out on a dramatic, jet black background of savory ink that had been daubed over a light underlayer of very slightly spicy tomato sauce. It was a wonderful combination of flavors that left us wanting more.
So, instead of ordering one of the fish or meat main dishes, we ordered another pizza. The Quatro Stagiones ("Four Seasons") is the equivalent of a "best of" album: The pizza is divided into quarters, each of which features a different selection of ingredients. The actual composition will change each day, according to the whim of the chefs. The toppings on our pizza were mushrooms, bacon, black olives and rich Gorgonzola cheese. To prevent squabbles at the table, each section is precut into two.
And what were the desserts like? Sadly we had no room left -- though we will be back, God willing, to explore that section of the menu. We can, however, applaud the substantial, all-Italian wine list, not just for being well-chosen, with plenty of reasonably priced bottles, but also for being so clearly laid out.
Although the map of the Italian wine regions at the front gives due prominence to Campania, the province around Isola's spiritual home in Napoli, we plumped instead for an old favorite of ours, Primitivo di Manduria from next-door Puglia. Full of fruit and chewy earth flavors, without being too tannic, this Old World country cousin of Californian Zinfandel was good value at 5,000 yen.
Dinner at Isola blu runs until 10:30 p.m. (9:30 on Sundays). Thereafter they offer a reduced "midnight menu," which continues until the wee hours Thursday through Saturday. This is an admirable formula and one that will surely work in other parts of town. Bring on Isola Green in Shibuya, Isola Mauve in Shinjuku . . . We can't wait.
Isola's original shop is at 6-17-2 Shirokane, Minato-ku; (03) 5447-2733. Open Monday-Saturday, 6-11:30 p.m.; Sunday and holidays, 6-11:30 p.m. Lunch: Saturday, Sunday and holidays, noon-2:30 p.m.